That same university once had four full-time faculty members teaching performing arts. Now there is one.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. In the past year and a half, the total number of faculty members in the university's liberal arts college has been sliced almost directly in half. Why? Lots of reasons. For one thing, this institution offers no tenure. Instead, faculty members receive extended contracts, subject to periodic renewal. For many years--decades, even--nobody thought it mattered much, since faculty dismissal without cause basically did not happen.
Then it happened. Now, people who work there are bemoaning the lack of tenure, and the lack of a union to protect the university's workers. Too late.
And so the ranks of the departing/departed began to increase. Those who were able to find other jobs, left. When administration offered a phase-down retirement plan, first to anyone over sixty with at least ten years' experience and then to anyone over fifty, many people took it. It's sort of like being a character in the Agatha Christie play, And Then There Were None, in which a character disappears in every scene.
Almost none of the faculty who departed--whether by dismissal, voluntary separation, or retirement--have been replaced. (Lately, "served on search committee X" has not been a line on anyone's C.V.) In many cases, classes--and even programs--were simply axed. Where that couldn't happen, salaried faculty members were replaced with part-time adjunct instructors who are paid by the course, accruing no benefits. If these part-time workers were allowed to teach full loads two semesters per year, their total wages would equal an annual income at the poverty level for 2 people in the state where that university is located.
But these part-time instructors can't even do that, because if they taught a full load, the law requires the university to provide them with benefits like medical insurance. In years past the university limited part-time teachers to 3 courses per semester, since state guidelines required them to provide insurance to anyone teaching 4 or more courses per term. When a court case changed that threshold to 3 courses per term (recognizing, wisely, that the hours a teacher spends in the classroom are only a small portion of total hours worked), the university responded not by offering insurance to its part-time teachers, but by limiting each instructor to 2 classes per term. This means part-time instructors must also work elsewhere as well; otherwise, the maximum they can make in one academic year is a couple thousand dollars less than the poverty level for one person, in the least expensive state in the union.
(With such significant salary savings being realized, you'd think tuition would be a bargain. After all, when major retail chains operate this way, at least their prices go down--I will grant them that--but when universities follow suit, for some reason their prices tend to go up, and astronomically!)
Right now there are so many directions I could go with this post. Much ink has already been spilled elsewhere on so many interconnecting issues: over-use, under-payment and exploitation of adjuncts, university failure to replace full-time faculty, the slashing of liberal and performing arts, the "crisis in the humanities," the financial crunch experienced by small private universities, the follies of late capitalism, administrative bloat, the problematic "student-as-customer" paradigm, the takeover of higher education by a business-minded mentality. Much has been, and is being, said. What can I say here that hasn't been said already?
What occurs to me, as I ponder the sorry direction in which our educational system seems to be heading, is the emphasis on utility--the veneration of things that are considered useful, practical, profitable, productive, efficient, cost-effective, over things that are considered superfluous, frivolous, costly, unproductive, labor- or capital-intensive. In this mentality:
business students = good, poetry majors = bad
science = good; music = bad
finance = good; foreign language = bad
(by extension, teachers of business, science and finance = good; teachers of poetry, music or foreign language = bad)
squeezing every last ounce out of your employees = good; treating people humanely (or at least paying them a living wage and benefits) = bad
squeezing every last penny out of your students (while pretending to indulge their whims) = good; providing a challenging intellectual experience that is ultimately meaningful though not always pleasant = bad
And so it goes. The scary thing is that once we start down the road toward pure utility, cost savings and productivity, where does it lead?
How, for instance, does a society over-emphasizing utility treat its members who may be unable to contribute as much to the economy as others--namely, how does it treat the elderly, the young, those with various disabilities or illnesses? What kind of society do we end up with, if few people know how to speak a language other than their native tongue? Or when few people know how to make music with others? Or when few people have studied something other than how to squeeze the last dime out of a business transaction?
I thought about the interconnections of all this as I was finishing one of the novels on my summer reading list--Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which has generated considerable and well-deserved positive buzz. Like all the best novels I've read, I felt totally immersed in the worlds Doerr created, and when the book ended, I felt abruptly yanked back to present reality. Of all the interconnecting threads that make up this novel, most haunting to me was the story of young, little Werner Pfennig--the genius German orphan and radio-whiz for whom joining the army was the only viable alternative to a brutal life in the coal mines that killed his father.
Werner isn't your stereotypical sadistic Nazi--just a young, bright yet naive teenage boy who wants something more out of his life and who, at least initially, doesn't totally understand what he's getting into. The well-written passages narrated through Werner's consciousness are disturbing because they make it possible for the reader to identify with the experience of being slowly indoctrinated into fascism; falling into denial; hearing, and for years ignoring, whispers of conscience, until a crucial climactic moment when Werner understands and makes a moral choice--after which he can no longer continue to live with himself. It's analogous to the proverb regarding the frog in slowly boiling water, which appears in the novel too.
The other thing that strikes me about Werner's experience is the fascists' emphasis on utility, productivity, and purpose. In some of the novel's most harrowing scenes, young soldiers are trained for ultimate toughness--no weakness, no flaw, no trace of humanity allowed, and anyone who displays any of those traits will be destroyed (including Werner's kindhearted young friend Frederick). We all know that Nazi ideology was fueled largely by racism grounded in false biological theories of hierarchy and superiority. And we can easily see how dehumanization leads down a slippery slope toward fascism and genocide. Yet sometimes it's easy to overlook other, more apparently mundane aspects of the mentality underlying such viciousness--such as a focus on what's useful, practical and profitable, to the exclusion of all else.
Yet isn't that where dehumanization starts--with the assumption that what's utilitarian, profitable, cost-effective and practical is more important and valuable than human feelings and relationships?
I'm not saying that any manager who's made cost-saving budget cuts is on his or her way to becoming the next dictator, or that people who major in (or teach) accounting instead of humanities are fascists, or that downsizing leads automatically to outrageous human rights abuses such as genocide. I'm also aware that many of those "at the top" of numerous repressive regimes have been denizens of the arts, so I don't take a simplistic position that arts and creativity are automatically going to save us from our own worst capabilities. It isn't that simple. I'm quite a practical-minded, hard-nosed "accountant" myself when I have to be--and I'm well aware that if the numbers don't work, neither does anything else. I firmly believe we need all professions in our world--accountants and bankers and scientists, those who perform crucial tasks of manual labor, masters of all that is practical, working alongside musicians and writers and humanities teachers and cartoonists and whoever else. We need all of it.
But that's my point--we need all of it. To keep our balance as a society, we need to understand that while there are times and places for the balance sheet and other practical considerations, there must also be times and places for creativity, enjoyment, relaxation, even frivolity--and for pursuits such as the study of foreign languages, music, and other subjects that are both capital and labor-intensive. The situation described above isn't unique to any particular institution. Right now it's a story repeating itself in many other locations, with variations--offers screaming evidence that our society as a whole is wildly out of balance, that we've lost our way; that for some reason, far too many of the people in charge seem hell-bent on heading down a path that emphasizes utility and productivity at the cost of everything else.
It's time for us to find a different path.